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Poverty, Disease, Environmental Decline


State of the World 2005 Calls for New Approach to Global Security

Worldwatch Institute
January 12, 2005

The global war on terror is diverting the world's attention from the central causes of instability, reports the Worldwatch Institute in its annual State of the World 2005. Acts of terror and the dangerous reactions they provoke are symptomatic of underlying sources of global insecurity, including the perilous interplay among poverty, infectious disease, environmental degradation, and rising competition over oil and other resources.

Compounded by the spread of deadly armaments, these "problems without passports" create the conditions in which political instability, warfare, and extremism thrive. They could lead the world into a dangerous downward spiral in which the basic fabric of nations is called into question, political fault lines deepen, and radicalization grows. Tackling these challenges demands a strategy that emphasizes prevention-focused programs rather than military might, the report concludes.

"Poverty, disease, and environmental decline are the true axis of evil," says Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "Unless these threats are recognized and responded to, the world runs the risk of being blindsided by the new forces of instability, just as the United States was surprised by the terrorist attacks of September 11."

In the State of the World 2005 foreword, former Soviet Union President and Green Cross International chairman Mikhail Gorbachev calls for a "Global Glasnost - openness, transparency, and public dialogue" and "a policy of 'preventive engagement'" to meet the challenges of poverty, disease, environmental degradation, and conflict in a sustainable and nonviolent way."

Among the many destabilizing pressures examined, State of the World 2005 highlights the following as particularly critical for efforts to build a more peaceful world:

Oil: Continued heavy dependence on oil carries with it enormous costs and risks. It fuels geopolitical rivalries, civil wars, and human rights violations. The economic security of supplier and buyer nations is compromised by severe swings in price and supply. And oil's role in undermining climatic stability poses grave threats to human safety.

Water: Water agreements have made cooperation rather than conflict the norm among neighboring states. But within countries, water shortages are fueling violent conflict. Worldwide, 434 million people currently face water scarcity. Insufficient access to water is a major cause of lost rural livelihoods, compelling farmers to abandon their fields and fueling conflicts.

Food: Worldwide, nearly two billion people suffer from hunger and chronic nutrient deficiencies. Food security is often undermined by factors such as water availability, land distribution, poverty, and environmental degradation. Among the major food security threats on the horizon are climate change, the loss of diversity of plant and animal species, the rise of foodborne illnesses, and food bioterror.

Infectious disease: Several known diseases have reemerged or spread geographically and many new ones have been identified over the last three decades. HIV/AIDS has become a major killer, and an estimated 34 to 46 million people are infected with the virus. The world's economically least-developed countries are the most affected by the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, the disease is devastating education, weakening militaries, and undermining political stability.

Youth unemployment: More than 100 developing countries worldwide are currently experiencing a "youth bulge" (a situation where people aged 15 to 29 account for more than 40 percent of all adults). Economic opportunities are particularly scarce in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where 21-26 percent of young people are unemployed. Worldwide, the more than 200 million young people worldwide who are either jobless or do not earn enough to support a family - especially young men - can be a destabilizing force if their discontent pushes them into crime or into joining insurgencies or extremist groups.

To confront these challenges to global security, State of the World 2005 calls for a strengthening of the civilian institutions and systems that are best equipped to address them. A range of strategic investments in sustainable energy, public health, protection of ecological systems, education, jobs, and poverty alleviation will assist in this transition, write the report's authors.

"The current fixation on fighting terrorism has overshadowed the graver threats that now loom over us, said State of the World 2005 Project Directors Michael Renner and Hilary French. "A more sustainable and equitable world is a more secure world. Rather than continuing to build military muscle, governments need to redouble their efforts to safeguard human and environmental security, enhance disarmament and post-conflict reconstruction, and redesign the United Nations for the security challenges of today and tomorrow."

In particular, the report calls on governments and others to take the following actions:

  • Strengthen and broaden international cooperation: The permanent membership of the U.N.'s Security Council must be expanded to make it more representative of today's world. The U.N.'s ability to respond effectively to underlying threats to international peace and security such as poverty, disease, and environmental decline also needs strengthening. U.N. institutions and other mechanisms of global governance must also be redesigned to better harness the energy and insights of civil society.

  • Fully fund and support the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) targets: In 2000, the members of the United Nations agreed to reduce global poverty, disease, and societal inequities significantly by 2015. These goals were complemented two years later by a series of sustainable development targets adopted at the WSSD. Shifting just 7.4 percent of donor governments' military budgets into development assistance would provide the $50 billion a year in additional funds that analysts estimate are needed to achieve the MDGs.

  • Bolster environmental peacemaking: Governments should build on the growing array of joint environmental initiatives, including peace parks, shared river basin management plans, regional seas agreements, and joint environmental monitoring programs that are helping to promote cooperation among traditional political adversaries. As such initiatives gain momentum, they will reduce international tensions while also protecting the environment.

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